The Hills was a popular MTV-produced “reality” TV show that created pop culture icons such as Lauren Conrad, Brody Jenner (son of Caitlyn) and one my favorites, Kristin Cavallari. The theme song from the show was called “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield which contains the lyrics “Today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten”. The song is fitting for the show as it features younger people at a crossroads in their life trying to find their way; however, I think the song is also apropos for networking engineers, as the industry sits at a crossroads today. The old is going away, the new is coming in, and network engineers need to think about what to do next with their careers.
I moderated a CTO panel in NY a few weeks ago and a bank CTO told me that she had divided her IT team into a “legacy” group and a “modern” group. I don’t know how you would feel about it, but to me, being lumped in with legacy would indicate that my career is short-lived. Network engineers today have learned to do things a certain way, and have done it that way successfully for years… but it’s time to build some new skills and begin writing that next chapter in your career. If you don’t, you’ll eventually find your way in legacy purgatory. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a good list to get you going:
- Automation and orchestration tools. All network managers are familiar with working with hardware and software from the likes of Cisco and HP. However, how most have never worked with software from the likes of Puppet, Chef, Metacloud, and Merantis. Many vendors, such as Silver Peak, have their own orchestration tools as well. In this digital era, orchestration tools are a key piece of the puzzle to enable business and IT goals to be aligned and network engineers should make it a priority to learn these tools.
- Architecture skills. Networks have changed and — thanks to the rise of the aforementioned automation and orchestration tools — having skills in configuring individual routers and switches isn’t as important as it once was. What’s important now is for network engineers to stop thinking of the network as a segment or a single device and start considering the entirety of the network. This becomes critically important in areas like the WAN where the architecture will define where broadband is used, the role of MPLS, and other technologies. Network architects will be in hot demand as more companies move to next generation networks.
- Software development. I certainly don’t think network engineers need to be able to build applications and take on the role of an enterprise software engineer. However, most network products today, including Cisco ACI and VMware NSX, have northbound and southbound interfaces that can be tapped into through APIs. Network engineers need to have basic programming and scripting skills to survive in the future.
- Analytics and data sciences. Not all network professionals need to become data science experts. However, the ability to take network information, analyze it, and use it to help make decisions on where to take the business will be a high value position in the near future. More and more organizations will use the network as the foundation for new ways of engaging with customers, and employees and data will be at the heart of that strategy.
- Network virtualization. The rise of the network virtualization engineer will be similar to what happened in the server space. Currently, network engineers need to be able to work with a physical network only. In the future, network engineers will need to be able to manage a physical network underlay, a virtual overlay, and the relationship between the two. Server VM administrators were hot jobs for years and the network is likely to go this way.
I understand that for well seasoned (old) professionals, change is hard and it’s uncomfortable. However, not changing will have a significant negative impact on your career. However, the fate of todays engineers is not a fait accompli, it’s really in your hands. As Ms Bedingfield sings “the rest is still unwritten”.